“Hurting people don’t need theology. They need a hug.”
I frequently hear that sentiment, or something like it, expressed by people who are wary of theology. Theology, they feel, is for the brainy, the academic, for those separated from the pains and trials of real life. When people are hurting, or struggling with pornography, or knee deep in an eating disorder, they don’t need theology. People don’t need theology when they can’t pay the bills, when their children are sick, or when their marriages are crumbling.
That’s an understandable sentiment, but it’s dangerously wrong.
I can’t think of anything that’s more important in the midst of a crisis than what you believe about God. Virtually any statement you make about God, about yourself, about your sin, or about the world, is at its heart a theological statement. Your understanding of God and His character filters down to everything you think and do.
When people say that theology is useless in the midst of a crisis, I suspect they’re trying to say that theology apart from love is useless. They’re attempting to paraphrase James, who tells us bluntly that “faith without works is useless.” Fair enough, but James didn’t mean to encourage good works without any coherent understanding of God and His Word. The book of James is, in fact, full of theological statements about God’s character, the work of Jesus, and eschatology. It’s a profoundly theological book, and James’ practical statements are consistently grounded in theological truth.
Too often, we think of theology as a series of useless arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In reality, every time you tell somebody, “God loves you,” you’re making a theological statement. Every time you proclaim the infinite grace of God, expressed through Jesus, you’re making a theological statement. Every time you talk about sin or grace or the hope of resurrection, you’re talking about theology.
As Christians, even our acts of mercy and kindness are undergirded with an understanding of theology — even if that theology is a basic one. “We love because He first loved us,” John wrote. You need at least a little bit of theology to know what that means — how did He love us, why did He love us, what did that love look like?
Without theology, human acts of love have no real meaning. They’re an abstraction without hands or feet.
Of course, knowledge without love can make people cold, angry, and unhelpful. The problem, though, isn’t too much theology. The problem is bad theology.
For the young man wrestling with pornography, it matters immensely that each person is made in God’s image, particularly the young women who fill his computer screen. For the family filled with anger and unforgiveness, understanding God’s grace and forgiveness is of the highest importance. For the young woman facing an uncertain future, the sovereignty of God makes an enormous difference in the way she approaches her life.
I’m not suggesting that hurting people should be assaulted with theological statements. But without a proper understanding of God and His character, we are more likely to make that mistake. When we’re insensitive toward other people, we don’t need less theology. We need better theology. We need to study God’s Word even more carefully to understand how our beliefs about God should affect our words and actions.
So please don’t create a false dichotomy between theology and love. Don’t divide the mind from the heart and hands, as if what you believe has no impact on what you do.
What you believe about God is absolutely essential. It might even be the most important thing about you, because it affects everything you think and do. Without theology, we have no way to understand love, God, or hope. But a proper understanding of God, His Word, and His character has an impact that resonates for eternity.
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